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Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles FitzRoy, as the Virgin and Child

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Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles FitzRoy, as the Virgin and Child, by Sir Peter Lely, circa 1664 - NPG 6725 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles FitzRoy, as the Virgin and Child

by Sir Peter Lely
oil on canvas, circa 1664
49 1/8 in. x 40 1/8 in. (1247 mm x 1020 mm)
Purchased with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, through the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), Camelot Group plc, David and Catharine Alexander, David Wilson, E.A. Whitehead, Glyn Hopkin and numerous other supporters of a public appeal including members of the Chelsea Arts Club, 2005
Primary Collection
NPG 6725

On display at Bendigo Art Gallery, Bendigo, Australia

Sittersback to top

Artistback to top

  • Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), Portrait painter. Artist associated with 842 portraits, Sitter in 19 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Barbara Villiers was effectively Lely's muse, her looks the inspiration for his type of female beauty. A contemporary commented that 'he put something of Cleveland's face as her Languishing Eyes into every one Picture, so that all his pictures had an Air one of another, all the Eyes were Sleepy alike'. Lely himself is said to have commented 'that it was beyond the compass of art to give this lady her due, as to her sweetness and exquisite beauty'. Lely and Villiers had a mutually beneficial relationship, in which her prominence at court promoted his art and his art publicised her beauty and status. Probably dating from about 1664, the painting is a portrait historié, or a portrait showing a recognisable sitter posing in the role of a figure from history or mythology. This audacious portrait, of the King's mistress and bastard as the Madonna and Child, represents the climax of his work in this genre. It could only have been produced at this time and in this place; thus it can be seen as a fitting representation of the values of Charles II's court.

Linked publicationsback to top

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  • Cannadine, Sir David (Introduction); Cooper, Tarnya; Stewart, Louise; MacGibbon, Rab; Cox, Paul; Peltz, Lucy; Moorhouse, Paul; Broadley, Rosie; Jascot-Gill, Sabina ., Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, 2018 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 7 October 2018 -3 February 2019. Bendigo Art Gallery, Australia, 16 March - 14 July 2019.), p. 133 Read entry

    A household name in her day, Barbara Villiers was mistress to King Charles II for the first decade of his reign. She bore six children, five of whom he acknowledged as his own. Famous for her beauty, she was despised by many for her lifestyle, and came to symbolise the excess and promiscuity of the Restoration court. As a result of her access to the king, she had some political influence and is thought to have both made and broken political careers.

    The artist Peter Lely was the leading portrait painter of the day and the king's Principal Painter. Barbara Villiers was effectively his muse, and her heavy-lidded, 'sleepy’ look became the fashionable style of beauty for court women partly as a result of Lely's paintings. Lely depicted her in a wide range of roles: as Minerva, St Catherine, St Barbara, a shepherdess and, here, most audaciously, as the Virgin Mary, with her child - probably her eldest son by the king - as the Christ Child. Portraits depicting the sitters in a religious or allegorical to such as this were usually intended to flatter the sitter, but here the irony of depicting the notorious Barbara Villiers in this way must have been noted by contemporary viewers. That such a portrait could exist at all is a reflection of the relative permissiveness of the Restoration court.

  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 23 Read entry

    Charles II’s mistress and Lely’s muse, Cleveland’s ‘languishing eyes’ were much admired and imitated by other women as, presumably, was her breezy attitude to Christian iconography.

  • Ollard, Richard, Pepys and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 58
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 87 Read entry

    A household name in her day, Barbara Villiers was the mistress of Charles II for the first decade of his reign. Charles acknowledged five of her six children as his own. Famous for her beauty and her ‘sleepy’ eyes, she was despised by many for her lifestyle and came to symbolise the excess and promiscuity of the Restoration court. As a means of access to the King, she had some political influence and is thought to have both made and broken political careers. Charles created her a duchess in her own right, and her sons were created dukes.

    The artist Peter Lely (1618–80) was the leading portrait painter of the day and the King’s Principal Painter. Barbara Villiers was his muse and, according to the diaries of the antiquarian Thomas Hearne, Lely is said to have stated ‘that it was beyond the compass of art to give this lady her due, as to her sweetness and exquisite beauty’. Lely painted her in a wide range of roles, as Minerva, St Catherine, St Barbara, a shepherdess, and here, most audaciously, as the Virgin Mary, with her child – probably her eldest son by the King – as the Christ Child.

Events of 1664back to top

Current affairs

The Coventicle Act, a component of the Clarendon Code, is enacted by Parliament forbidding non-conformist conventicles.
The Admiral's Regiment, precursor to the Royal Marines, meets for the first time as part of the mobilisation for war with the Dutch.

Art and science

Playwright, Thomas Killigrew, stages his best-known play, The Parson's Wedding with an all-female cast. After the Restoration, women were permitted to take to the stage as actors.
Construction of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford begins. Designed by architect, Christopher Wren, the building is funded Archbishop Sheldon.

International

Mounting pressure for war with England's trading rival, Holland, increases as the two countries clash over trading interests around the world. Thomas Clifford, Baron Clifford, passionately champions the cause for war, becoming a leading voice in a bellicose parliament which promises an unprecedented grant towards the conflict.

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